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Region 4 DVD Reviews: Classics of the 40s

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, Dec/Jan 2002, v.32/6

Meet John Doe/Gary Cooper on Film cover Meet John Doe/Gary Cooper on Film
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck
Casablanca cover Casablanca
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Movie: A+, Picture: D, Sound: C-, Extras: B Movie: A+, Picture: B, Sound: B-, Extras: B
Frank Capra was one of the greatest Hollywood directors and Meet John Doe is one of his greatest movies. This movie is now available in Australia on the budget region-free label, LaserLight.

The movie has Doe (Gary Cooper) accidentally created a hero by Barbara Stanwyck and his status manipulated by a superb Edward Arnold. Unusually forthright for a viewer in today's world where Christians are one of the few groups permissibly derided, Meet John Doe has an explicitly Christian theme.

How sad it is that this DVD presentation is poor. It isn't the extras: the half-hour documentary is interesting and Tony Curtis' short introduction is bearable. It's the transfer that's appalling.

Here's how to do it. Start with a poor print, well scratched in parts and of uniformly poor focus. Then replace a couple of seconds here and there with a differently sourced print, differently framed, and with different light balance. Do some minor noise removal on the mono sound track so that most of the scratches become thuds, then boost the upper midrange to preserve dialog coherence (this works reasonably well) at the cost of incipient scratchiness in the loud bits.

Then use a very low video bit rate (to fit both this two hour movie and the half-hour documentary onto a single layer DVD) so that MPEG artifacting is hovering on the border of perception, occasionally tipping over onto the wrong side. Since this an NTSC disc, it requires 3:2 pull down to convert the 24 frames per second to 30. Most NTSC DVDs record only the 24 film frames and the player does the pull down. This one, incredibly, has all 30 frames recorded suggesting that it was sourced from some video version. This technique manages to waste 20% (probably more because of the difficulty of compressing two out of every five frames) of the available data space on a DVD.

It's easy to see why Ingrid Bergman became such a star. Not only was she a fine actor, her style and beauty were both timeless. Were she to be starting out today, there would little doubt that she would again be a star.

Bogie I'm not so sure about. He has never been quite my cup of tea (except, perhaps, in The African Queen) But who cares? It's no wonder that the movie achieved the Best Picture Oscar in 1943 given the appearance of Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet (who is nearly as good as he is in The Maltese Falcon), and a marvelously slimy performance by Peter Lorre.

The story is set in World War II Morocco, with intrigue rife as spies, refugees, Nazis and the French authorities mingle, largely in Bogart's bar. Bogart and Bergman are thrown together in this mix, having to resolve a backstory of love and abandonment, while trying to deal with mundane issues like staying alive.

The print from which this DVD was generated was pretty close to flawless, with hardly any scratches or flecks, aside from a couple of frames showing signs of emulsion decomposition at 32:05 and 32:10 into the movie. The transfer to DVD is immaculate. The black and white film benefits from PAL's higher resolution. The sharpness of the bulk of the movie contrasts somewhat with the relatively fuzzy stock footage used at various points.

The audio is presented in mono in three languages (there are plenty of subtitles as well), each in 1.0 Dolby Digital format using a generous 192kb/s of data. Clarity of the dialogue is excellent and noise is largely absent, although the limited bandwidth available to the filmmakers of the day (rolling off from 4kHz, and with terminal sharpness from 6kHz) detracts a little from Max Steiner's score.

This is the definitive Casablanca, handsomely presented. Get it.

TRIVIA: There were two attempts to turn the movie into a TV series, in 1955 (10 episodes) and 1983 (7 episodes). In the latter, David Soul--Hutch of TV's Starsky and Hutch--performed Bogart's role.

Running time: 122 minutes
Aspect: 1.37:1 (original aspect ratio)
Sound track: English, Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono), 192kb/s
Subtitles: Nil
Features: Featurette: 'Gary Cooper on Film' (29 mins), Introduction by Tony Curtis, Conclusion by Tony Curtis, Trailer for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
Running time: 98 minutes
Aspect: 1.37:1 (original aspect ratio)
Sound track: English, Dolby Digital 1.0, 192kb/s; French, Dolby Digital 1.0, 192kb/s; Italian, Dolby Digital 1.0, 192kb/s
Subtitles: English, French, Italian, Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Romanian, Bulgarian, English for the hearing impaired, Italian for the hearing impaired
Features: Featurette 'You Must Remember This' (37 mins), Trailer

© 2001-2005, Stephen Dawson